There’s just something so deeply fascinating about bioscience—the science concerning living organisms and their relationships to each other and their environment. I guess my interest in the subject was piqued at an early age by my dad who subscribed to the National Geographic magazine, which I read religiously for many years until the subscription became a little too expensive for my taste.
But I’m still consuming nature studies voraciously, thanks to a little black set top box that enables my TV to receive Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and a heap of other great cable channels. My favourite documentaries are usually the ones produced by the National Geographic Society (NGS) and shown on NatGeoTV.
My all-time favourite is still La marche de l’empereur (March of the emperor), a breathtakingly beautiful French nature documentary film which was co-produced in 2005 by NGS and Bonne Pioche, a Paris-based independent production company.
If you haven’t seen it, you simply must. The National Library Board carries copies of the English dub titled March of the Penguins, which is narrated by none other than actor Morgan Freeman. The film chronicles the incredible journey of emperor penguins in the harshest place on the planet—Antarctica.
The viewing experience is so surreal and pathos-driven, it arouses all sorts of feelings as if you were out there with the penguins in the freezing Antarctic. Believe it or not, penguins do feel the cold! And this documentary immaculately captures that on film. Words will hardly do this film justice, but as best I can, in a nutshell, this is what happens…
The film begins with some spectacular cinematography of the cool blue and white vistas of ice in the Antarctic landscape. Every year, the emperor penguins arduously journey single-file over 100km of ice to their sacred breeding ground where the ice is safe and solid all year round.
When the penguin colony finally makes it across to the breeding ground, the next order of business is to find a soul mate and start propagating. They begin their search for a mate and once paired up, engage in a series of tender mating rites where they bill and caress one another. For a whole year, they are totally devoted to one another.
In time, the female penguin becomes pregnant and lays a single egg, which she then delicately attempts to transfer to the feet of the waiting male. The slightest mistake in this transfer will result in the egg rolling off the female’s feet and making contact with the frigid ice, which will destroy the embryo in mere seconds.
With the transfer done, female penguins which have by now lost a third of their bodyweight, quickly ditch their male partners and head out to sea for as long as four months at a stretch to feed themselves and obtain extra food for feeding their future offspring.
Over the next two months, the male gingerly tends to the egg, deftly balancing it on his toes while stoically huddling with other fathers against blistering winds and 60-below zero snowstorms. Their only source of water is snow, which they lap up with their pointy beaks.
The chicks eventually hatch, and the males provide the newborns with a rich protein snack from their throat sacs. By the time the females arrive back at the breeding ground, the males would have lost half of their bodyweight. If the female partner, however, does not return as hoped, the male partner will abandon the chick (which will not survive) and return to the sea to feed itself.
Once the females return, the males go out to sea to feed themselves, giving the mothers an opportunity to bond and feed their offspring. During this time, they will have to endure fierce storms, which will kill some of their young.
At all times, males and females out at sea are vulnerable to predators like the leopard seal. They will continue to tend to the chick for some four months, shuttling back and forth to sea, providing food for their offspring. As spring sets in, the ice begins to melt and the distance to the sea decreases. The film winds down when the parents leave the chicks to fend for themselves.
In the behind-the-scenes footage of this film, the producers show in part how creatively and innovatively the documentary was shot over 12 months in extreme cold and isolation. Some of the candid, intimate shots were filmed by hiding a camera inside an artificial egg while other close-ups were filmed by mounting the camera on a homemade surfboard.
Other parts were also shot underwater using a ‘crittercam’ where a penguin was outfitted with a camera. This incredible tale of life over death and of love has won numerous awards including the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Very few documentaries in the world can match the brilliance of this level of animal magnetism.
I can’t help but wait with bated breath for another feature of this magnitude. Until then, I’ll just have to feed my insatiable hunger for animal experiences with repeat views of March of the Penguins, generous doses of NatGeoTV and frequent visits to the Science Centre’s unique life sciences exhibits.